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By John Helmer, Moscow

President Vladimir Putin (lead image, left) has announced a new policy of withdrawal from eastern Ukraine under cover of a referendum to confirm the sovereignty of Kiev.

No, hold it. Putin has announced an old policy in a new way in the English-language press.  

No, no – an old policy, already rejected in private by the US Government and the Kiev regime, was announced by Putin to President Donald Trump in Helsinki on July 16. That was in case Trump  hadn’t been told or hadn’t thought of it. It was also for Putin and the Russian military command, the Stavka, to demonstrate to each other that the US will agree to no Russian withdrawal agreement until Crimea is recovered. 

In the Russian language media, there is only one Russian explaining this means war without end. That’s Igor Strelkov (right), the former leader of the Donbass uprising in 2014. He says Putin’s  formula for the Ukraine settlement  is “chewing gum” he wants to spit out when noone is looking. “But there are some political signals that up to the present moment the capitulation of DNR  [Donetsk People’s Republic] and LNR [Lugansk People’s Republic] is not planned.  If it was so, Russia wouldn’t have eased the migration rules for Donbass citizens. So this idea is temporarily closed. Another idea — will the Ukrainian armed forces be defeated? A ceasefire isn’t possible without it.”  That’s what Russians military sources call the Syrian solution.

Following his meetings with President Trump on July 16, President Putin described the talks on Ukraine this way: “Returning to our discussion of the Ukrainian crisis, the importance of observing the Minsk agreements in good faith was noted. The United States could be more resolute in insisting on this and could motivate Ukraine’s leaders to engage in this work.”

There are three Minsk agreements . The first, the Minsk Protocol of September 5, 2014, was signed by representatives of the government in Kiev; the representatives of the governments in Donetsk and Lugansk; the Russian Ambassador to Kiev; and the representative of the international observer mission in eastern Ukraine, the  Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). There were twelve points in the agreement. Two of the points on the future political arrangements required decentralization of power for autonomy of Donetsk and Lugansk under Ukrainian law and early local elections there.  This meant that the referendums for self-rule, held in Donetsk and Lugansk four months earlier on May 11,  were neither accepted nor rejected. 


A second memorandum was signed on September 19. Its five points were military in character, aiming at a ceasefire and withdrawal of combat aircraft, heavy weaponry, and attack formations.  The third agreement was signed on February 15, 2015.   Its seven points repeated the earlier ones.

The most recent report of the OSCE, dated July 9, confirms “The Mission continued to observe violations of key provisions of the Minsk agreements and related commitments. In particular, it observed weapons in violation of withdrawal lines on both sides of the contact line – 107 in government- and 157 in non-government-controlled areas. In addition, it observed the presence of newly laid mines on both sides of the contact line and the presence of armed forces and formations in close proximity to each other as well as in residential areas.”

The OSCE’s special monitoring mission in Ukraine is run by Ertugrul Apakan, a Turkish foreign ministry official who was once in charge of the Turkish military occupation of northern Cyprus; and Alexander Hug, a Swiss Army officer with postings in Kosovo and Bosnia. For details of the political alignment of OSCE, read this.

In Moscow on July 19, in a meeting with officials of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Putin reiterated that “the Minsk Package of Measures provides fundamental grounds for a political settlement of this crisis.”

What he meant by that was disclosed by officials who were privy to the unreported speeches at the ministry meeting. These officials were authorized to tell Bloomberg: “Vladimir Putin told Russian diplomats that he made a proposal to Donald Trump at their summit this week to hold a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but agreed not to disclose the plan publicly so the U.S. president could consider it, according to two people who attended Putin’s closed-door speech on Thursday.”

At the same time, Russian Ambassador to the US,  Anatoly Antonov, who had attended the luncheon meeting of delegations in Helsinki, announced that between Putin and Trump there had been “oral agreements”  . Antonov followed at a meeting of the semi-official Valdai Club by adding there had been  “specific proposals for resolving this [Ukrainian] question.” He stopped short of disclosing the details.   

Antonov repeated himself in a statement to the Financial Times: “new proposals for solving [the conflict in the Donbas region] were made,” he claimed.

The official spokesman of the foreign ministry told the press on July 18: “Work has started on many things of which Vladimir Putin spoke, with appropriate instructions having been issued, and diplomats, based on the outcome of the summit, are starting to work on the issues that were outlined during the joint news conference.”  Then she added for the Financial Times: “Given that the international community, first of all the US, has been unable to force Kiev to fulfil the Minsk Agreements, other options for a solution to the intra-Ukrainian conflict can also be discussed.”

Left, Anatoly Antonov; right, Vladislav Surkov.

Vladislav Surkov, who was reappointed to the Kremlin staff in June, is the president’s special representative for eastern Ukraine; he is also the civilian directing the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Councils, as the Novorussian governments are known. Surkov has been negotiating with Kurt Volker, his US counterpart; they met last August in Minsk; in November in Belgrade; and in January in Dubai. According to press statements by Volker, their talks have focused on a US proposal for a force of up to 30,000 United Nations peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine.

Surkov claimed last week that along with the UN military deployment, there would be a UN-supervised referendum for residents of Donetsk and Lugansk on their political future. Surkov told the Financial Times through a spokesman: “the idea of solving the conflict through a referendum had been discussed in Moscow repeatedly. But he said such a process would be different from the vote Russia conducted in Crimea in early 2014 to justify its annexation of the territory from Ukraine.’This would have to happen under the auspices of the UN,’ the person said. ‘And it would have very little to do with Russia — nobody is talking about unifying those regions with the Russian Federation.’”

Surkov’s last point was blunter than has been reported in Russian, but not a change of strategy.  Surkov was going a step further than the Minsk agreements, and further than Putin had been saying in public. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, didn’t deny the new referendum  had been discussed in Helsinki.”Some new ideas were discussed. They will be worked on,” he told Bloomberg. The only thing that was new about the idea was that Peskov and the others were talking it up on the record, and to the western press.

By July 20 the Russians had given Trump four days to consider what Putin had proposed. The White House then issued a rejection. This came, not through Trump’s spokesman but through the National Security Council (NSC). The White House is “not considering” support for Putin’s referendum proposal, the NSC claimed.  “The Minsk Agreements are the process for resolving the conflict in the Donbas, and these agreements do not include any option for referendum. Furthermore, to organise a so-called referendum in a part of Ukraine which is not under government control would have no legitimacy.”

The careful wording rejected what Putin had not told Trump. It also avoided the key points of Putin’s proposal – that UN troops would supervise the voting; and that the issue for the vote would be restricted to the first Minsk Protocol Point 3; this requires a return to Ukrainian sovereignty with “decentralisation of power, including through the adoption of the Ukrainian law On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.” 

In short, Putin offered Trump to withdraw from political support of Novorussia, and not to allow the Novorussians the option of seceding from Ukraine. Trump hasn’t quite killed the offer.

Rejection from Kiev appeared to be blunter. “There will be no referendums held at gunpoint, with Russian tanks parked at schools and kindergartens of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk, no referendums organized in territories where Russian propaganda and Lifenews have been brainwashing the population for the past four years, intimidating them by ‘fascists and junta’ no referendums organized by Kremlin puppets in Kremlin-occupied lands.”

The Ukrainian riposte sidestepped the points of Putin’s proposal; and also the Russian assessment that the outcome preferred by Donbass voters would be a return to Ukrainian sovereignty, not accession to Russia. Most Russian assessments believe this has majority support in the Donbass.


The Canadian Government paid the International Republican Institute in Washington to conduct the poll. Both sources are actively hostile to Novorussian organizations and views, including the governments of Donetsk and Lugansk,. The poll report claims a sample of 1,378 residents of the Donbass region, two-thirds from Donetsk, one-third from Lugansk; most are from cities in these regions. Women and the elderly predominate in the sample.  To substantiate that the views sampled were not those of Canadian and US Government policy, the pollsters say that 96% of their sample spoke Russian. Source: http://www.iri.org/

For the time being, the Donetsk and Lugansk governments have stuck to the Minsk positions; they have not addressed Putin’s new referendum proposal.  Denis Pushilin, Chairman of the Donetsk People’s Council, had earlier announced his support for a UN peacekeeping force so long as it was not NATO dominated.   

The internet alt-media which follow the Kremlin have interpreted the Putin referendum as a breakthrough. According to Fort Russ, “such a proposal would be revolutionary. It would mean the end of the US’ ‘Project Ukraine’, the end of the Minsk Agreements, the official recognition of Donbass self-determination, and an enormous step in the readjustment of the US’ imperial architecture, which is Trump’s historic, watershed opportunity.”   Russia Insider called  the referendum “the end of current Ukrainian statehood”. The Saker wasn’t sure what to make of it. “Trump may not have offered an explicit US recognition of Crimea for Russia, or an easing of Ukraine-linked sanctions. It’s reasonable to picture a very delicate ballet in terms of what they really discussed in relation to Ukraine. Once again, the only thing Trump could offer on Ukraine is an easing of sanctions. But for Russia the stakes are much higher.”

This support for the Putin referendum in the English-language alt-media finds no endorsement in Russian. Strelkov (nom de guerre; family name Girkin) has published more on the issue than anyone else; his assessments appear in his own blog, in video interviews, and in small-circulation Russian internet media.  An officer of FSB forces between 1996 and 2013, decorated for service in Chechnya, Strelkov was a colonel before he was assigned to reserve. After the start of the Donbass rising in 2014 he became defence minister of the Donetsk government. But he quarrelled with Moscow’s directions on tactics and strategy and was withdrawn.

Before the Kremlin dismissed him, Strelkov was sanctioned by the US on June 20, 2014. His US Treasury citation said Strelkov was “responsible for or complicit in actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, and/or asserting governmental authority over a part or region of Ukraine without the authorization of the Government of Ukraine.”

Strelkov’s criticisms of the military shortcomings of Novorussian and Russian strategy since then are well-known. He is particularly critical of the direction of the Ukraine front by Surkov, and also the financier Konstantin Malofeev.   For more on Malofeev’s parallel adventures in monarchism, Orthodox Christianity and bank fraud, read this

Igor Strelkov interviewed by Maxim Kalashnikov (Kucherenko),  July 17, 2018. Source: http://istrelkov.ru/

On July 20, Strelkov wrote  that if a referendum were held, the vote would be “146% for return to the structure of Ukraine without any condition”.  According to Strelkov, “Putin doesn’t believe it is likely that the USA and Ukraine will agree to such an option, as it [would set a] precedent that calls into question all further ‘Ukrainian statehood’; together with its ‘integrity’. If [a referendum] on Donbass is possible, then why is a further one impossible in Transcarpathia, for example?”


Source: https://www.themaven.net/

So what is Strelkov’s explanation for the Russian disclosures of Putin’s referendum proposal before Trump had time to review it in detail with his officials; but so soon as to draw rejection, plus the announcement of US military reinforcements for Kiev?

“Not to win, not to lose”, Strelkov says is Putin’s strategy, balancing between civilians like Surkov who recommend capitulation to US demands, and the Stavka which believes that no-win, no-lose makes a US-armed military offensive in the Donbass inevitable.  “Here [Putin’s] task is not to lose on the one hand; not to dishonour [Russia]. And on the other hand,  not to win. This is the task they [Surkov] began to pursue in 2014. They sacrificed a bunch of assets which had been donated by the initiative [of the Donbass uprising]. They are afraid to win and do not want to, but whether they can is still unknown.”

Strategically, according to Strelkov, the weakness of this position invites American and Ukrainian attack. “Sooner or later they will go on the offensive. They are constantly preparing for this. The only thing holding them back… is the position of Russia. Until they are ready to fight with the Russian army, [the Ukrainians] are not sure that Russian troops will not stand up for Donetsk and Lugansk [as they had in 2008] for South Ossetia.”

“At first, I could not believe that these [Kremlin] idiots really consider the Minsk agreements as a basis for reconciliation. For me it was axiomatic that war, once it started, must end either in victory or defeat. And in the situation which has developed, the rejection of victory means unconditional defeat, because Ukraine is only, I emphasize only, an instrument. This tool must be broken. There would still be problems, sanctions and so forth, but with a broken tool against us there would be no one to fight. The Kremlin really seriously believed — for me, this was a discovery: I thought they were scoundrels, but I didn’t think they are so stupid —  that Minsk should be implemented;  that is, to exchange Donetsk and Lugansk for the recognition of the Crimea. And at the same time, it is necessary to stuff Donetsk and Lugansk into  the special status of [autonomy in] Ukraine in order to be able, let’s say, to influence and block decisions by the Ukrainian authorities which Moscow will not be satisfied with.” 

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